Not long ago a group of four business persons, including two Agora Enterprise executives, traveled in Asia to observe and consult with three social enterprise businesses. Between the four of them, they had 90 years of robust experience in business, entrepreneurship, marketing, leadership, and finance.

The Tale of Three Businesses

The first business they visited was well established, fiscally mature and served the community well with job creation, financial and tax responsibility and social engagement. They had been in business for 10 years. In the startup phase they brought in qualified managers and sought help from business people experienced in the country. Local mentors provided counsel in the language, culture, social conditions and integration of business and social responsibility. There were ups and downs, but they consider their success to be closely linked to their willingness to be life-long learners. As a result, their future looked bright.

The second business had been in-country for about 15 years, had created jobs for many people, gained respect and credibility with locals, and was making a clear difference in the community. They had built their business model on proven models. However, upon arrival in 2014, the visiting team found that the business was facing significant challenges. The market had changed and their customer base was in transition. Their cash flow was at risk and they were worried about the future. The company leaders asked the team of four for advice. They knew they needed to learn, wanted help, asked for it and appreciated two days of good counsel. Though times are tough now, the horizons are brightening.

The third business gave evidence of much success in the social sector, however the business model was being challenged and finances and management were in disarray. These problems—and others—were evident to the visiting team. However, the business owner’s desire for help was not equally evident. He seemed detached from the realities of where the business was headed. Being a learner was not a concept he had internalized. His business is at high risk.

Why is it important to always be learning?

The leaders of the first two businesses were committed to learning, even when that meant accepting hard truths about their companies. The third was not.

Which businesses are most likely to succeed? Those whose leaders are always learning. And here’s why.

Speed of change

Moore’s Law describes the driving force of technical and social change, increased productivity and economic growth in exponential technical terms. For example, four exabytes of unique information will be generated this year, more than in the previous 5000 years. The top ten in-demand jobs in 2010 did not exist in 2004 and it is estimated that by 2035 50% of the jobs on the planet today will not conceptually exist. The amount of technical information is doubling every two years. The speed of change in the world today demands business leaders must always be learning.

Hall of Fame hockey great, Wayne Gretzky, when asked what makes him different, suggested that he does not go where the puck is but where the puck will be. Such logic is prophetic of a manager who has learned to keep growing and learning. Zig Ziglar once said, “I’m a constant learner. You need to be a constant student because things change and you have to change and grow. And I emphasize the word ‘grow’.”

Watch this video for an exhilarating look at the speed of change in technology.

Complexity of modern business

Some evidence suggests 80% of U.S. businesses fail within the first five years of operation. That’s in the U.S. Now consider the complexities of a foreign culture, different language, factors of integrating the profitability, job creation and social bottom lines; international law; trade issues; and financial/accounting issues. The failure rate of social enterprise is likely to be much higher. In order to succeed, such complexity demands owners, consultants and coaches to be constantly learning. In the words of Sidney Poitier, “I have always been a learner because I knew nothing.”

Common Wisdom

A wise man 3000 years ago reminded us of the importance of counselors in decision making, “Make plans by seeking advice…many advisors make victory sure…plans fail for lack of counsel…”(King Solomon). Henry Ford said, “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.”

To be successful in any business, but particularly to be successful in a social enterprise overseas that is striving for profitability, job creation and social and community change, requires entrepreneurs and owners to always be learning, open to new ideas, and seeking counsel from others.

For some practical suggestions in how to be make learning a habit, check out this article by Michael Fear.

*Image credit: © 2014 Ray Barreth